Qat: The Way In

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Chewing in a top-floor mafraj

Trying to do business in Yemen without chewing qat would be like trying to do business in Washington or London without doing lunch, dinner, or drinks. This fact sank in around my fourth day in Sanaa when I was invited to my fourth qat session. Now, after four weeks here, I have met, through qat, government officials, ministers, politicians, business owners, journalists, poets, aid workers, a Hamas official, and an actress. Suffice it to say that without qat I would have neither friends nor sources. One evening, on a day I had resolved to avoid qat—qat sessions, like endless rounds of dinner and drinks, can become exhausting—a man who I had been trying to interview summoned me to his mafraj, or sitting room, at 7 in the evening. He was chewing with his son and a circle of friends; I interviewed him amid piles of discarded branches.

Qat is a bitter green leaf. You store it up in one side of your mouth until it forms a giant wad, distending your cheek like a golf ball, or if you keep masticating, a tennis ball. You never swallow the leaf itself, just the juices. It’s a stimulant containing two active ingredients, cathinone and cathine, but beyond that there isn’t much agreement about its effects: It’s strong, it’s weak, it’s addictive, it’s not, it makes you introspective or euphoric or chatty. It’s banned in the United States but legal in Great Britain.

Many Yemenis retire to chew in a mafraj, which has a very particular architecture: floor-level seating, with cushions and arm rests, along three or four sides of a room. Others, though, simply chew while getting on with their business day. When I go to my neighborhood vegetable vendor after lunch, I find him sitting on the floor of his stall, all but hidden by the cantaloupes. He has flecks of bright green on his lips and is cheerfully willing to give me a deal on tomatoes. Truck and taxi drivers chew on the road, and soldiers do it on the job, despite the ban on consuming in uniform. A qat session can last for four hours or eight, or from after lunch until after midnight. It’s permissible to drop in and out of a chew. But really, once you’re settled in, why would you want to leave?

Some expats in Yemen try to resist. “In Sanaa I do all my business before 1 p.m.,” said Randy Durst, an American who manages a travel company here. By 2, offices are shut, and the teetotaler’s business day is shot. Many foreigners, though, simply go with the flow. Robert Burrowes, a political science professor from the University of Washington who resides part-time in Yemen, said that qat has facilitated much of his work over the years. “It would be hard to do research here and not chew qat, because it’s during the qat sessions that people seem most relaxed, and most prepared to talk about politics. You can often talk in some depth and detail over a four-hour period.” Kyle Foster, the country director for Mercy Corps, said partaking in qat is essential to aid work too. “Yemen has a dysfunctional ministry system in which officials are at work for maybe two hours a day. But if you can line up a qat chew with the official you need to talk to, then you’re in.” It’s also a useful tool for managing personnel: “You can sit with your staff for six hours, strategizing and planning,” Foster said. The difference between qat and after-work drinks in the Western world is that after a few beers, the worker bee starts to loose his coherence. Qat, on the other hand, is a sparkly upper, enhancing lucidity. Some Yemenis call it Vitamin Q.

While the guys at Hunt Oil, which operates in Yemen, probably resist, even officers at the U.S. Embassy unofficially partake. A foreigner in Sanaa who is familiar with embassy staff said that while Ambassador Edmund Hull came into his job dead-set against the drug, his political and economic staff, charged with taking the country’s pulse, have effectively forced him to concede that they have to do it sometimes.

For Yemenis, of course, the social and professional pressure is even more intense. In a story still talked about as a cautionary tale, the government fired a high-ranking official in the 1970s, taking him by complete surprise. Rumors of his termination had been making the rounds, but his German wife had forbidden him from chewing, so he was out of the loop. And last year, in a uniquely Yemeni twist on locker-room syndrome, Rahma Hujaira formed the Yemeni Female Journalists Forum after the Association of Yemeni Journalists excluded its female members from a chew. “That was an outrageous decision,” she told the Yemen Observer.

Part of the charm of qat is that no one, at least in Yemen, has ever tried to distill it or speed up its effects. Qat can be strong stuff, but it takes a long time to take effect, and while you are waiting you must sit and pick at the little stack of shrubbery you have brought, painstakingly stuffing bad-tasting foliage into you mouth, and washing it down with water or soda pop. This will frustrate anyone chasing a quick high, but it preserves the social ritual, which is a major part of qat’s appeal. If I’m in the right mood, I love the hours of ebbing and flowing chat that segue seamlessly from one-on-one confidences to group discussions to solo speechmaking and back, about politics and culture and love and war. It makes me wonder how often, back home, I really took the time to listen and talk.

The drawbacks are serious and numerous. To name a few: Qat cultivation uses up scarce water resources, and consumption uses up even scanter incomes. Little children run wild in the streets while their parents indulge—one afternoon I saw a group of them playing with a sizable fire they had built in the street. Fortunately Sanaa is mostly built of stone.

I wonder, though, if qat doesn’t have a positive political impact. Despite Yemen’s reputation in the West as a terrorist-infested no-man’s land, I’m frankly impressed that it doesn’t fly apart at the seams, considering the circumstances. A country of some 19 million souls, Yemen is impoverished, home to tribal groups barely under the control of the central government, and has spawned Islamist groups like the Aden Abyan Army. Yet the government enjoys more legitimacy than most Arab regimes, its close cooperation with the United States has produced no outpouring of violence, and even the powerful religious party, Islah, works closely with President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s secular government. Could this tenuous stability have to do with the fact that for five or more hours every afternoon, the nation is seriously chilled out?

A fitful modernizer, President Saleh announced in 1999 that he was taking up exercise and giving up qat. Yemenis don’t really buy it, and Saleh is believed to have stuck to his resolution for only a few months. Still, he sent a signal that in order to join the modern world, the country needed to move away from the national addiction. Saleh’s announcement makes me think of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fondness for posing in track suits and karate outfits in contrast to his binge-drinking predecessor Boris Yeltsin; it also puts me in mind of Mexico, which under Vicente Fox, its gung-ho ex-CEO of a president, is slowly abandoning the afternoon siesta.

A Yemeni abandonment of qat is as inconceivable as a Russian abandonment of vodka. Sadly, though, there is probably something fundamentally incompatible between the efficient modern business world and old ways that involve boozing, napping, and getting high. To the list of globalization’s impacts, add abstemiousness and an inability to relax.